By Tom French
The Deer River, a pristine jewel of the Northern Adirondacks, has a long history of inaccessibility. Unfortunately, except for the hardcore, that song remains the same.
Jamieson and Morris indicate in their Adirondack Canoe Waters – North Flow (3rd Edition, revised 1994) that access changed by the year. Until 1984, only the first 2.4 miles from the Red Tavern Road were “open to canoeing,” but then, a “limited spring season” was negotiated on an annual basis between the St. Regis Paper Company (later merged with Champion International). The Adirondack Mountain Club cleared “six short carries,” but in 1986, Champion International and the ADK “failed to reach agreement,” perhaps due to insurance issues.
All of that changed in 1999 when the state negotiated access to the Santa Clara Tract through fee acquisitions and easements. The DEC established an official, but unmarked, carry from Red Tavern Road along a woods road to an iron bridge over the river allowing for a two-car, one-way, downriver paddle into the heart of that series of rapids where the ADK cleared a path. I can tell you from experience that little evidence of the ADK’s work remains – at one point, my daughter and I couldn’t see each other even though we were only the length of the canoe apart.
Emma and I put in where Red Tavern Road crosses the river, just north of the Deer River Flow. We were quickly meandering as the Deer pushed the limits of geometry, turning on itself so we would occasionally see the electrical lines along the road a couple hundred yards away.
Such is the first 1.5 miles of the Deer, but it was a beautiful, blue-sky day, unseasonably cool for late June, with enough breeze to keep the bugs down. The slopes of Furnace and Ragged Mountains combined with tall white pines along the banks and the quality time with my daughter made all the turns worthwhile. Given the narrowness of this section of the Deer, less than 10 feet at times, I was surprised at the lack of beaver activity.
When the river straightened, it also widened, and I was hopeful that we might actually reach the rapids without having to manhandle the canoe across a load of sticks and branches. I was sadly disappointed when we came around a bend to discover a significant dam. With a drop of over a foot, we docked and dragged over. Shortly later, we came upon a second beaver dam also requiring us to exit the canoe.
Finally, we reached two large trees separated by about 30 feet blocking the river. We could hear rapids around the bend, and a nice landing was to the left, so we portaged. Emma carried the pack and paddles. I hefted the canoe. Fortunately, the deadfalls and rapids were at a U-shaped bend, so we were able to relaunch in about 50 yards after crossing the point of land, but we only paddled a few yards before another series of rapids appeared.
Each subsequent carry was progressively more difficult than the last, with the third being a slog and the last just plain brutal. An occasional path may have been a remnant of the ADK work or an animal trace. We never spotted any markers, though relatively recent flagging was wrapped around a tree with older flagging near a magnificent waterfall.
A quarter-mile after the third carry, we reached the island mentioned in Jamieson. Hesitant to shoot the flume, we pulled up to some logs and rocks to float the boat down, though once we were standing, we decided we probably could have navigated the tongue.
Less than 100 yards further, we arrived at the “twin cascade” before the bridge. It was the fastest water we’d seen all day with most shooting off quickly to the left and no good landing on the right.
A large erratic separated the main channel from a flume which must rip in the spring when the water is high. We pulled up along a rock and surveyed our options – none good. I climbed to the top of the erratic and spotted the bridge, which was encouraging, but the smaller channel, though low, was too rocky to drag the canoe over, and the woods were thick.
I hopped, skipped, and jumped to a spot where we could at least haul the boat out, but then it was a bushwhacking drag all the way down to the bottom of the flume and waterfalls. I never did shoulder the canoe and this is where I lost sight of Emma even though she was at the other end of the canoe. A trail might have once existed, but I don’t see how. After 50 yards, we spotted the pool at the bottom of the falls. Fortunately, a steep, clear shot opened through the trees. The canoe slid down by itself.
We launched and took some pictures of the two falls and enjoyed the spray drifting across our faces as if we were The Maid of the Mist along the Deer.
The trip had taken exactly four hours. We sat on the bridge and enjoyed lunch before hiking back to the car that we’d deposited along Red Tavern Road. The trail was mostly uphill with a couple wet sections made worse by illegal ATV use and recent logging activity.
The Red Tavern Road bridge over the Deer is about two miles west of Route 30. The DEC carry access is 4.1 miles from Route 30, or a little less than 2 miles east of the Red Tavern. It can be identified as a gravel apron with several boulders to block vehicles.